Still Moves

An installation by Russell Mills and Ian Walton
Lentworth House Farm, Abbeystead, The Forest of Bowland, Lancashire
24th July - 19th September 1999


Still Moves was a work of homage, which focused on our responses to aspects of the life, works and influence of one of the most important figures of 20th century art, the German artist Kurt Schwitters, who spent the last three years of his life (1945-48) in Ambleside, Cumbria. The installation also suggested ideas of transformation and regeneration, of movement between one state and another.

The use of old suitcases and travelling trunks relates to the nomadic life that Schwitters led, physically. aesthetically and politically. Prior to the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the late 1930's and the accompanying intolerance towards intellectuals, radicals and the intelligentsia, Schwitters had travelled extensively and freely in Europe. His love of travel had been instilled in him since his frequent childhood expeditions but was also prompted by the need to escape from the stifling relationship with his parents. 'With both my parents in the same house, I'm simply conservative ... you can only stand it if you travel a lot' he wrote. By train, bus and tram, Schwitters criss-crossed Europe to attend exhibitions, visit other artists and to tour his own brand of subversive, anarchic Dadaist performance with the founder of the De Stijl movement Theo Van Doesburg and others. On his journeys he was usually accompanied by several close artistic friends who were required primarily as porters to carry the numerous suitcases he always insisted on taking. There are many anecdotal stories of these journeys, which reveal that the suitcases were generally full of materials for his collages and assemblages rather than his personal effects and clothes. Schwitters would stop abruptly, open cases, pull out scraps of collage material and create collages wherever and whenever the mood took him. Van Doesburg relates the tale of once racing to catch a train whilst struggling with a particularly heavy suitcase when its clasps burst and the contents spewed out over the pavement. Much to Van Doesburg's annoyance, and everyone else's amusement, the case was found to be full of heavy stones and rocks, nothing else.

Under the culturally restrictive Nazi regime, Schwitters's travels became more dangerous and necessarily less frequent. Branded as a "Degenerate Artist" and under the close scrutiny of the SS, he was finally obliged to flee Germany in 1937, escaping to Norway with his son Ernst. After a few years of being holed-up in Lysaker eking out a pittance, in 1940 he and Ernst were once again obliged to seek refuge as the Germans invaded Norway. Managing to secure a passage on the last allied boat to leave Norway, they arrived in Scotland where they were immediately arrested as "Enemy Aliens". They spent eighteen months being shifted from various detention camps in Mid-Lothian, Yorkshire, Lancashire and finally, in Schwitters's case, the Isle of Man. On his release in 1941 he re-joined Ernst in London. Whilst there he befriended Edith Thomas who he nicknamed Wantee; she quickly became his partner and his muse. Finding living in London intolerable (the Blitz was at its height, food shortages were extreme and Schwitters found no support or sympathy for his work), they moved to Ambleside in Cumberland and Westmorland in 1945. Suitcases accompanied him on all these enforced journeys. They contained all that he had managed to salvage from each hasty escape, all that he held most precious. These were shells protecting his mobile palettes, his studio in miniature, his artillery. Other anecdotes survive which describe his ingenuity in using the suitcase to combat the weather even when infirm. During the severe winters of 1946-47 when he lived at 2 Gale Crescent, a house high up over the town, Schwitters would use his suitcase as a sledge to slide over the snow and ice down into Ambleside.

The installation
Rising from the floor towards the roof, twenty suitcases hovered in a sweeping arc. Each was empty and open; over each was suspended a single, low voltage, bare light bulb. Suggesting aspiration, imagination and freedom they also displayed a defiance of gravity. The only other element in the installation was the "Random Radio*", a 1940's valve radio, which had been specially adapted in such a way as to literally travel, ceaselessly trawling the wavebands, passing through station broadcasts and transmitting random fragments of sound in real time. White noise burred into half-heard waltzes, ranting Dutch voices rose and fell to disintegrate into a Lancashire sheep mart, insistent earth deep thuds of Hip Hop bounced over the alien shuddering of frequency occupying Morse codes. Sounds of the everyday, of what's happening now stuttered and shrieked, slurred and slid into an audio collage mirroring Schwitters's own hybrid assemblages and the sonic experiments of his phonetic poems, the "Random Radio" also alluded to concepts of change and transformation. Visitors to the installation never heard the same sounds twice.

In Still Moves we originally thought to fill the suitcases with earth densely packed with seeds of a flower, herb or shrub, which over the duration would bloom into life. This was conceived of as living metaphor for growth and affirmation and as a direct reference to all those whose lives are dependent on the land. However in the process of assembling the installation we became increasingly concerned that conceptually and contextually this direction would not offer the resonance we were hoping for. By the time we had assembled the installation, it became evident to us that the seeds idea might be too precious and metaphorically obvious and therefore should be abandoned, It seemed more appropriate and more suggestive to leave the suitcases open and empty, as receptacles for the viewer's imagination.

The responses we received from visitors were intriguing and extremely gratifying, especially as Still Moves was sited in a barn in the middle of the remote and vast open land of the Forest of Bowland. Most were totally unexpected in that their readings of the installation were so varied and exceeded our expectations. These rows of silent, empty and open suitcases had excavated a myriad of associations and emotions, some joyful, others painful and emotionally heightened. Memories of travel, to dreaded boarding schools, to the unknown horrors of war and to distant lands in search of new beginnings, mingled with remembrances of the exhilarating anticipation of packing for holidays or the loss of loved ones. A domino effect of real and metaphoric thoughts encouraged meditations on partings and meetings, on discovery, yearning and on ghosts. Like an altar of votive lights, these memory jolts opened up a series of reflections ranging from the joyous to the painful, from the poignant to the aspirational. One visitor writing anonymously in the Visitors Comments Book donated a poem, which as the extract below shows, expressed much of how many people felt on experiencing the installation: -

"... Inside the torn

lining of my box, clinging to ruched pockets and straps,
I sway to wavebands in random discharge, embracing you all,

wondering how long you have been empty of clothes.
of greetings and goodbyes, of journeys that began and ended

on platforms, battered spectators as you were
to timetables and separations."

A suitcase is not only a simple means of transporting belongings, but is also a mirror of one's personal expression. Cradling uniquely individual objects, which reflect the owner's character, tastes and preferences, the suitcase is literally a carrier of memories and meanings, rich in historical associations and dreams of possible futures. The suitcase suggests movements of individuals and of populations, made by choice, necessity or force. Symbolising transience and uncertainty, the suitcase conjoins memories of post-war trauma and mass migration following all wars and more topically, the multi-cultural diaspora of asylum seekers from the Eastern Baltic States into the rapidly expanding European Union.

The image of a suitcase, packed prior to a departure, conjures up a myriad of images and emotions- the wrench of separation and loss or brave new beginnings and hopes for a brighter, better life. For some it represents a door opening onto unknown horizons and new experiences or as a key to unlock a wider choice of opportunities which may eventually offer a chance of escape from the claustrophobia of the familiar and to shape one's own identity without fear of repression. Nomadic, it is an icon of reaction against the constraints of cultural and geographical limitations. Like a guerrilla army, small, mobile and adaptable as opposed to the lumbering machinations of a regular army, it recognises no boundaries or traditional rules. Signifying exile and displacement it is not merely a nostalgic trigger, a lazy cliché but rather is a potential constituent in a fluid, transitional flow, an in-between state. It exemplifies Jacques Derrida's phrase, half "not there" and half "not that." Equally apt is his summation that "the suitcase signifies the moment of rupture, the instance in which the subject is torn out of the web of correctedness that contained him or her through an invisible net of belonging."

*the "Random Radio" is a 1940's valve radio, which was specially adapted for the installation Still Moves.

Normally a station waveband is located by the rotation of an external tuning knob, which connects internally to a mechanism that in its turn is connected to a thin strip of copper which glides from side to side along a printed fascia marked with station names and their waveband frequencies.

For our purposes the copper waveband tuner was disconnected from the internal mechanisms that relay the movements of the external tuning knob, thereby denying any manual control or choice. An electric stepper motor, modified to revolve at 1 revolution per minute was located at the back of the radio and connected to the internal tuning mechanism. As soon as the power is turned on the tuning mechanism slowly scans the waveband, continuously moving from one end to the other and back again.










  2004-05 © Russell Mills design: